LAS VEGAS – When last season started, there were 108 international players from 42 countries and territories playing in the NBA.
When the new NBA season starts, Yudai Baba wants to be a part of making that number grow.
A 6-4, 184-pound guard and a member of the Dallas Mavericks’ summer league team, Baba has been grabbing attention with his heady play and ability to play solid defense. His performance and execution has definitely been noticed by the Mavs’ coaching staff.
“I’ve been really impressed with his ability to comprehend what’s happening on the floor,” coach Mike Weinar said. “Obviously, there’s an initial language barrier there, but he’s doing a great job with that and I’ve been impressed with that.
“I’ve harped on it again and again, (but) he’s a hard-playing guy and we like hard-playing guys.”
While Baba prospered on the court when he played overseas, it’s no secret that the obvious thing he has to overcome in America is the language barrier. Texas Legends assistant coach Takuma Ito has been in Las Vegas with the Mavs and helping Baba navigate his way through that process.
“The (NBA) game’s a little different, and it’s something he has to get accustomed to,” Ito said. “Even like little things in practice, he has to get adjusted to.
“For example, like the substitution. In Japan he doesn’t have to ask for a sub. He watches the practices and his team is doing 5-on-5, and here he says, ‘Hey, I got you. Let me get in.’ He’s just standing and waiting his turn. And I told him in America you’ve got to express yourself and you’ve got to tell them what’s going on and that you want to play.”
Ito and Baba have a long history working together.
“I was an assistant coach for the (Japanese) National Team, and I was actually the head coach for his team (Alvark Tokyo) before he arrived,” Ito said. “So we didn’t work together on that team, but on the national team I worked with him.
“He’s eager to learn and he knows what he doesn’t know. He’s a good learner and quick at picking up things.”
Baba participated in the Mavs’ mini-camp last month and played so well that they invited him back to be a part of their summer league team. The inquisitive guard knows it’s a long shot for him to make the Mavs’ final roster next fall, but he’s willing to roll the dice and take his chances.
“I feel like I’m showing my strength so far,” Baba said, while using Ito as a translator. “It’s a little bit of a — not frustration — but I obviously want to get some playing time.
“But I think it’s a great learning lesson and I want to learn something from it.”
The Mavs, who meet Croatia at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center, have been gushing about Baba’s performance in Las Vegas. After Friday’s 96-92 victory over Brooklyn, guard Daryl Macon said: “He brought that energy out there. He wasn’t scared and we just played off of him.”
Added forward Antonius Cleveland: “He played good defensively, and his motor was high the entire game. I think the team can feed off that.”
Baba led the Mavs in rebounding against the Nets with six and tied in steals with three in just 19 minutes. Overall in the three games the Mavs (2-1) have played this summer, he has 17 points and nine rebounds, and is 6-of-11 from the field in 43 minutes.
“He plays hard, he leaves it all on the court,” guard Cameron Payne said. “He’s one of our toughest defenders, and even though he gets a lot of fouls, he keeps playing and that’s what we like about him.”
A realist at heart, Baba knows the integral parts of his game that he needs to shore up.
“Shooting without hesitation,” he said. “It’s more of a mental adjustment I need to make and maybe an aggressive mindset that I need to look to shoot more.”
For now, the backbone of Baba’s game is his frenetic baseline-to-baseline style of play. When he enters the game, he immediately brings energy to the court.
“It’s about expressing my lifestyle of basketball,” Baba said. “That’s how I have been doing it offensively and defensively. Playing hard is something that I’ve always had on my mind.”
Ito also knows of the adjustments Baba must incorporate into his game if he wants to become a permanent fixture in the NBA.
“Things such as spacing and things like that, the team that he played for (in Japan) is very systematic,” Ito said. “Here, it’s more read and react.
“So that’s something that he has to adjust to, and I think he’s getting better at.”
The Mavs think the same thing.
“He came to a mini-camp with us and I’m really impressed with his hard play and his ability in multiple positions,” Weinar said. “He’s not a point guard, but he can play those wing positions and he can guard a bigger guy.
“Hopefully I’ll get him a few more minutes tomorrow and we’ll see what happens.”
As far as determining Baba’s upside, Weinar chose his words carefully.
“It’s hard to say ‘upside’ in the 10 days that I’ve seen him,” Weinar said. “If I had a month around him I can give you a better guesstimate of that.
“But if he keeps on his same track he’s going to do just fine.”
And perhaps one day, Baba will be in that large number of international players who are making a living in the NBA.